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‘I don’t think I developed emotionally’: Earl Spencer on the pain of boarding-school abuse | Private schools

‘I don’t think I developed emotionally’: Earl Spencer on the pain of boarding-school abuse | Private schools
‘I don’t think I developed emotionally’: Earl Spencer on the pain of boarding-school abuse | Private schools


It was one thing writing about the abuses of his childhood, Charles Spencer tells me, with half an ironic laugh; it’s quite another talking about them with strangers. When we meet in an office at his publisher, he is reeling a bit from this new fact of his life. The more sensational chapters of his memoir of a deeply traumatic five years at the Northamptonshire prep school Maidwell Hall had been splashed all over the previous week’s Mail on Sunday. The following morning, he had been a guest on Lorraine Kelly’s mid-morning TV sofa, raking over the painful detail of that long-buried past for the viewers. As a result, he says, apologising if he seems a bit strung out, he’s had two days of thumping headaches followed by vivid nightmares.

The early responses to his book about being sent away from home to be brutalised at school at eight years old have been instructive. On the one hand he’s had a mailbox of emails from fellow survivors, praising his courage in speaking up for the generations of “privileged” schoolboys and girls who, like him, suffered serial beatings and sexual assault in the closed world of boarding schools well before puberty.

On the other he’s experienced the default prurience of the tabloid press, which picked over his book for clickbait (ever since Spencer stood up in the pulpit at Westminster Abbey and blamed redtop journalists for hounding his sister, Diana, to death, he seems to have been considered fair game). The Sun, for example, thought the most appropriate headline for a book about the lasting harm of childhood trauma to be “Di Bro’s sex at 12 with hooker”. The food writer William Sitwell, a near contemporary of Spencer’s at Maidwell and Eton, meanwhile, blithely dismissed the substance of the memoir in two columns in the Telegraph. In the first, Sitwell branded Spencer a traitor to his class: “One of their own – an earl, uncle to princes, seriously landed, stately housed, replete with a deer park, fine furniture and fabulous paintings – is dishing the dirt from within…” he wrote. In the second, he argued, bizarrely, that “Spencer has not suggested that, beyond corporal punishment, he or anyone else was a victim of abuse”.

Earl Spencer: ‘I’d been accumulating memories from the school as my own therapy.’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

While professing to have long avoided any column bearing Sitwell’s byline, Spencer shakes his head when I mention that sentiment. His book was written precisely to challenge that stubborn, unhinged belief among his peers that school regimes featuring daily beatings and endemic paedophilia “never did me any harm”. (Reading Sitwell’s piece I was reminded of an observation by Alex Renton, the journalist who has done much in recent years to shed light on the history of abuse at many of Britain’s most exclusive private schools. Soon after Renton revealed the worst of what had happened to him as a child, he ran into an old school friend at a party: “Don’t stand near Alex,” the friend warned others present, “he’ll put his hand down your trousers.”)

The affecting power of Spencer’s account lies in its description of the way predatory violence was entirely normalised in his school years. Maidwell Hall was presented to wealthy parents as a kind of term-time paradise for young boys; once the family had departed down the gravel drive, Spencer writes, it became a hellish place. The awful wound of homesickness was preyed upon by fearful teachers who bullied and thumped and caned vulnerable boys, or insisted on “special” naked swimming lessons; that was exacerbated by a senior matron obsessed with humiliating bedwetters, and a junior matron who molested 10-year-olds and had sex with 12-year-olds after lights out. “I realised very early on that this was a horribly ugly subject,” Spencer says. “And I made a conscious effort to make the book as smooth a read as possible. As a result every now and then the reader might tread on a landmine and think: what the hell was that?”

Ritual beatings were a timetabled part of the day. Every evening after tea, a senior boy would read out the names of small boys who had committed some minor transgression of opaque rules. They would be sent to line up outside the headmasters’ office, inside which he would require boys to drop their trousers and then choose the implement with which to inflict punishment, slipper or cane or switch. Some of the contemporaries who have shared their stories with Spencer still have the physical scars on their backsides to this day, 50 years on.

In the book, he says he first started to properly reflect on the psychological damage of those years in his 40s, after his second marriage had broken down, and he was questioning, in therapy, the roots of his destructive behaviour. In talking about his parents’ broken marriage and his abandonment issues, he mentioned in passing his time at Maidwell Hall. The therapist asked Spencer to expand and he found he couldn’t stop. He’s now approaching 60 and has just become a grandfather for the first time. I had a sense, reading the book, I say, that the impetus for telling this story was that it was now or never.

Spencer with his sister Diana and nanny Mary Clarke in 1972. Photograph: © Earl Charles Spencer

“I suppose it was,” he says. “I started considering writing it when I was 54. I’d been accumulating memories from the school as my own therapy, but then I started to hear from other people who had gone through much worse than me [fellow pupils he met by chance, or contacted specifically] and that activated a form of survivor’s guilt. I had been quite mainstream in the school, academically OK and decent at sports. But it was a ruthless place, very Lord of the Flies. And these people who were truly brutalised were the quiet blokes who weren’t in the sports team and were sitting at the back of the class. It sounds ridiculous – I was a very small child – but I felt guilty that I hadn’t defended them more.”

The identities of his fellow pupils are protected in the book (the historian in him has given each of them the name of one of King Charles I’s regicides). He names the teachers he knows to have died, including Jack Porch, the headteacher who “retired early” at 51 for unspecified reasons.

“He was a fascinating case of a very intelligent paedophile sadist,” he says, “because he’d constructed a system that fed him little boys’ buttocks every night. He had this ability to present to parents a sort of charm and humour. But he was deeply deviant. A chilling presence. I received the audiobook [of A Very Private School] today and I listened to the first bit again. The preface is about this incredibly sweet kid being systematically made to feel like nothing every day. I started crying, actually. The idea that such a thoroughly sweet boy has had to live with that for the last 50 years is appalling to me.”

In among the pictures in the book, there is one of the moment his life shifted, as he waits to be driven to Maidwell for the first time. He stands in the stiffest possible jacket, a mini-me of his father, the eighth earl, behind a large trunk with his name written on it. His big sister Diana sits on the trunk smiling – she is not to return to boarding school until tomorrow. Their nanny stands by looking anxious. Before he went away Charles acquired the nickname Buzz, from his estranged mother, because he had “all the happy effervescence of a bee”. His book is dedicated “to Buzz”, the boy he believed to have died at the moment he was handed over to the care of Porch.

One question the book raises is: what can the parents who sent their seven- and eight-year-old sons to these institutions have been thinking? One answer is that they bought into in that curiously British notion that young boys, particularly the children of privilege, must get used to pain and suffering, must break their attachment to their mothers and homes in order to mature – to embark on their destiny as leaders of men. Another is that the parents wanted them out of the way to pursue their social lives (the priorities of some are described here as “horses, dogs, children”, in that order). Spencer’s book dwells on the choices of his own parents, without condemning them. Why is that?

“Well,” he says, again with that half-smile, “among the plethora of psychotherapies that I’ve undergone, one of them has been understanding your parents and letting go of any blame. So that probably comes across. My mother had a very tricky mother herself. No doubt these things can get passed down generationally. And she was so young. She went straight from being head girl of a private school to marrying this very eligible chap, and a mother at 19. And she couldn’t navigate the demands of that.”

Maidwell Hall in Northamptonshire. The school has launched an inquiry into claims of past abuse. Photograph: David Humphreys/Alamy

Frances Spencer’s response was to divorce her husband to marry Peter Shand-Kydd and – having lost custody of her four children – including two-year-old Charles, to divide her time between the Scottish island of Seil and a sheep station in New South Wales. He recalls visits to Scotland to stay with her in the holidays, where he’d help out in the newsagents she owned in Oban. “She wasn’t at all a mollycoddling mother, but she was fun at parties,” he says. “Her life ended with intense Catholicism; she spent her time helping children visit Lourdes every year. And at the same time, I think, there was massive guilt, which manifested itself through alcoholism. She died young, at 68, and the last decade of her life was one of sadness. So, no, I’m not angry with her.”

There is a sad moment in the book when the young Spencer escapes from some of the attentions of his schoolmasters to be alone in a favourite place in a wooded part of the school grounds; he sees his father drive past in his Rolls-Royce, returning from some lunch or other. The ludicrously large family seat at Althorp was only a few miles from Maidwell, but he felt like it could have been on another planet. Once he seriously considered shooting himself in the foot at the end of a holiday, to avoid returning to school. Could he not have told his father how desperately unhappy he was?

“It never occurred to me,” he says. “And I have to say, it never occurred to any of the people I spoke to.” He supposes they didn’t want to disappoint their fathers. “At the end of the term, I’d come home with a report, and he read it with me. And that was our 15 minutes talking about school. He was very much a product of his class.”

With his first wife, Victoria, and daughters Kitty, Eliza and Katya, outside Althorp House, Northamptonshire. Photograph: Mathieu Polak/Getty

With his own seven children, Spencer has tried to be far more present in their education. They all went to day schools, though his two sons boarded at their own choice in their late teens. He does the school run when he can with his youngest daughter, Charlotte, who is 11, chatting with her in the car, “trying to keep tabs on what’s happening,” the stuff he feels he missed out on.

For all these efforts at normality, there are, inevitably, several moments in the book when you recognise him still to be imprisoned by his class, as much as his memories of school. He is at pains throughout to say he is well aware of his privilege, and that children in other circumstances clearly suffered far worse than anything he experienced or can imagine. Still, for example, he includes without much of a caveat the comment by one of his teachers to the idea that he would be better off in a “normal” school: “You are too precious a flower” for that (the implication being that you may live in daily terror of being assaulted by various members of staff here, but that clearly pales beside the horrors of being educated by the state).

The ground rules of our interview are that Spencer will not answer any questions about the royal family – knowing of old that any quote he gives will be immediately stripped of the context and beamed around the world. I don’t therefore get to find out, for example, whether he sees this book as a companion volume to his nephew Prince Harry’s Spare – a cry for help from within the walls of inherited privilege, a demand that things are done differently. In his book’s preface he includes this: “It’s a fact that many of the leading figures in British public life today – from prime ministers to royalty – have received just such a private, boarding school education. While some thrived under benevolent headteachers, others have been wounded by wretched treatment during formative years. Some of that poisonous legacy they have unwittingly passed on to society.”

He was a contemporary, among others, of Boris Johnson, whose schooling followed a similar path. Does he see these traits, for example, in him? “I can’t actually drill down on specific individuals,” he says. “But I think it has to be a logical fact that people who went to these schools at that time, of which Maidwell was one, simply had to become desensitised in order to survive.”

He casts his comments in the book mostly in the past tense – things have undoubtedly improved since the 1970s, but of course 70,000 families still make the choice to send their kids away at a young age.

“I do know a few people who have been through this more recently,” he says. “One who is only now 25 or so. He’s a wreck and he told me his life was destroyed by having to go to one of these schools at seven. He writes to his father saying just please apologise, but the father cannot apologise because that choice was part of his entire code. A lot of families ‘with an old name’ might be on their financial uppers these days, but still for them to say, my son goes to a very smart school, gives them social validation; they are prepared to put up with whatever their child is putting up with, to be able to drop that at a dinner party.”

I wonder, when he was writing his book, whether any part of him felt like a “class traitor”, as some have suggested?

“One thing,” he says, “is that school was very, very clever at inculcating thoughts. One was that telling tales was a capital offence. And there were times when my schoolboy conscience felt that strongly when I was writing. Of course, logically, that’s ridiculous. But it goes deep. Quite a lot of people, most of whom didn’t go to Maidwell, have sidled up and said: ‘You should drop this book, because you’re feeding the enemy, giving ammunition to people who are against what we do.’”

He welcomes the fact that the current Maidwell Hall – where boarding fees can exceed £30,000 a year – has in light of his book opened an investigation of its past and invited former pupils to come forward. It is not alone. Renton has compiled a database of abuse allegations against 490 independent schools and more than 300 named teachers.

Shaking hands with the late Queen and Queen Mother during the Eton Boys’ tea party at Windsor in June 1978. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

I wonder if Spencer had qualms about naming the teachers who had died. Did he expect to hear from their families?

“I thought long and hard about that,” he says. “And in the end I thought, actually, they deserve to be named. Nobody’s going to pin the crimes of the father on the children or the grandchildren. The point is, very sadly, their fathers did terrible things.”

One of the teachers who singled him out at nine years old for particular violence – a man he used to fantasise about meeting up with later in life in order to return a beating – is still alive. He calls him Goffie in the book (another of Charles I’s regicides). He has sent him a copy: “He’s very old now. But I just want him to know.”

At one point he thought of bringing a legal case against the assistant matron who molested him and other boys in her care. Why did he decide not to do that?

“I thought about it when all the cases against Catholic priests happened in America,” he says. “But I think what she did was so troubling to me that it’s sort of beyond me to cope with it.” Those disturbing assaults on his innocence, interactions he found impossible to process or understand, led to him using saved pocket money to visit a prostitute while on holiday in Italy with his family when he was 12. He believes those experiences damaged for ever his subsequent capacity to form mature relationships.

“I got a private detective involved at one point, to find her,” he says. “She’s been quite careful to stay off the internet, married a couple of times, had a kid. There is nothing that the law could do that would make it OK for me. Having said that, if others now come forward, I would certainly validate what they say.”

He has been married to his third wife, Canadian-born Karen Villeneuve, the chief executive of a charity that protects vulnerable children, for 13 years. Does he now look back and see the damage of his childhood as a factor in his catalogue of earlier failed marriages and relationships?

“Put it this way,” he says, “I don’t think I developed emotionally in those early years as would have been the case in a loving home with actively loving adults.” Many of those contemporaries, who like him “have demons sewn into the seams of our souls” as a result of their experiences at schools like Maidwell, bear out that belief, he says. “There is a lot of addiction and depression. The wife of a great friend of mine at Eton – who surprisingly emigrated to Australia – got in touch with me when news of the book came out to say: ‘I just want you to know, he went to a place like Maidwell and had the most appalling time. He’s had terrible depression over the years but I’ve never seen him so happy as when he heard you were bringing a book out about all this stuff.’ Someone else I know,” he says, “was a guy who was terribly bullied, three years older than me. And he wrote to me a while ago and said: ‘You writing this book has let me tell my wife for the first time what I went through at Maidwell. We’ve been married for 30 years – and we just spent the last hour crying together.’”

For himself he suggests that the catharsis has probably been delayed. He has found the experience of revisiting all this history for publication “quite nightmarish”, but is proud that it is done.

“Like many of my contemporaries, I used to drink way too much,” he says. “Not on a dangerous level, but certainly to anaesthetise things. I haven’t had a drink since January.”

I mention to him something that Billy Connolly once told me in an interview about coming to terms with the memory of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his father: “It’s not called emotional baggage for nothing – it means you can put it down if you want to.”

“I totally agree with that,” he says. “I do feel I might put it down now.” You sense he believes he owes it to long-lost Buzz, to at least do that for him.


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